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Men’s Basketball: Rob Kurz – The ‘Old Man’

Chris Hine | Friday, February 22, 2008

It takes a lot to make Rob Kurz angry. But two years ago, when Kurz watched the NCAA Tournament, he couldn’t stand what he was seeing.

Fresh off a 2005-2006 season full of agonizingly close losses, Kurz and his Notre Dame teammates failed to make the Tournament for the second year in a row. For Kurz, his career at Notre Dame was not going the way he planned and watching others fulfill their dream of playing in the NCAA Tournament while he sat at home certainly didn’t help his blood pressure.

“It was so frustrating and as soon as the season ends, you’re working toward next year and the first thing you think of is your No. 1 goal to make the Tournament,” Kurz said. “… It’s incredibly frustrating and just the amount of attention the Tournament gets, it’s tough to not be a part of it. It’s brutal watching the Tournament games in your room when the season is over.”

In Kurz’s sophomore season, the Irish experienced enough heartache to inspire a B.B. King album – losing in overtime to Louisville and then-No. 3 Connecticut, in double overtime to Pittsburgh, Georgetown and Michigan, and less than three points to No. 6 Villanova, West Virginia and Marquette.

“It was brutal because we felt like we had a much better team and had more talent to be playing better than we did,” Kurz said. “The way we competed in a lot of games showed we could have had a really good year, but for whatever reason, we just couldn’t get over the hump.”

But after living through the 2005-06 nightmare and watching others succeed in the Tournament, Kurz and former guard Colin Falls resolved to banish that maddening sense of disappointment forever.

“We absolutely learned a lot about ourselves and our team after the tough season with the close losses,” Falls, who is playing professionally in Italy, said in an e-mail. “I think more than anything, Rob and I being the leaders of the team, set the tone in the off-season that hard work and sense of urgency were the only things that were going to get the Notre Dame basketball team back on track. And I think the pain of that season and not wanting to ever experience that feeling again is what drove us that summer.”

The next season, the Irish were playing in the Big Dance, thanks in large part to the play and leadership of Kurz, who averaged 12.3 points and eight rebounds per game. Irish coach Mike Brey said Kurz developed the voice he would need as the lone senior on this season’s team.

“I think toward the end of last year, being around Colin, hanging out with Colin, he saw how Colin helped manage the group, and he took a page out of that book and I thought he did a great job over the summer,” Brey said. “That was the first time he was really a voice with our guys.”

Despite the Tournament appearance, last season still left some unfinished business for Kurz. Notre Dame lost 74-64 to Winthrop in the first round and Kurz wants to make a run deep in the Tournament this season.

“Obviously, my first two years were learning experiences and I’ve gotten the opportunity to really enjoy our success these past two years,” Kurz said. “Getting back to the Tournament this year would be unbelievable but getting there isn’t enough.”

But before the Tournament arrives, Kurz and the Irish have a chance to win the Big East regular season title. The Irish have a 10-3 record in conference, and like two years ago, Notre Dame has faced its share of close games, but this time has come out on the winning end of most of them.

And Kurz is a big reason for that change. He hit a clutch jumper to put Notre Dame up three in its 71-68 over Rutgers on Sunday, hit a tie-breaking 3-pointer late in Notre Dame’s 73-67 win over Connecticut on Jan. 5 and hit another key 3-pointer in overtime to lift the Irish over Providence 81-74 on Jan. 31.

“I think he’s accepted the role as the silent enforcer,” former Irish coach and current ESPN analyst Digger Phelps said. “He’s the one guy that when it’s crunch time, is always there to get it done. He’ll end up with a double-double, and he’s the one guy that makes this team what it is.”

Kurz said the difference this season is a change in the team’s attitude late in games.

“I don’t think it enters into your mind because the focus this year is on ‘Let’s go out and win this one,’ where two years ago it was ‘Are we going to win the game? Can we escape with the win?'” Kurz said. “It was just a different mentality because it seemed like we couldn’t win any of those close games. Now, our mentality has evolved to the point where we’re going to leave it all on the floor and play fearlessly and aggressively.”

As the sole captain, his teammates say his leadership style mirrors his style of play on the court – steady, consistent, never flashy, but always dependable. And that helps to keep everything together in close games.

“I tease him about being an old man or a father or something like that,” sophomore guard Tory Jackson said. “But he’s wise, keeps us out of trouble, just like a father would. He keeps everybody together. As a leader on the floor, he keeps everybody calm and in the game. Everything about his personality is why we’re in the position we are now.”

His teammates describe him as an easy-going guy who gets along with everyone, but most importantly, as captain of the team, he has everyone’s respect, especially Jackson’s.

“He’s willing to give you his whole house if he could,” Jackson said. “He’s just an open guy. Rob’s a great person. If I had a kid, I’d have him look up to Rob to see how to carry himself.”

Kurz lends a valuable voice in the huddle and in the locker room, but he’s most effective as a leader when he says nothing at all. He’s constantly in the gym, even on off days, and that lays a guilt trip on some of his teammates, who might want to spend their time off doing nothing.

“Even during summer in the off-season, even if it’s a day that I don’t feel like working out or shooting, I know he’s kind of the same way like me where I feel a little guilty if I’m not in the gym and he’s in there,” junior guard Kyle McAlarney said. “… I always believed that no one works as hard as me when I came here and I see what Rob does and it makes me work harder.”

Junior forward Zach Hillesland said that his work ethic shows everyone on the team what it takes to play in the Big East.

“He’s a steadying force. His work ethic is kind of contagious,” Hillesland said. “He sets a great tone for the rest of the guys who may not understand how much work it takes to be a great player in college basketball.”

But Kurz isn’t all business all the time. Jackson called him “the silent prankster” and he will always remember Kurz’s special way with words when he leaves Notre Dame.

“I’ll miss his creative words. Just funny, such as quoting [dirty lines] from ‘Superbad,’ or instead of saying my name, he’ll be like, ‘What up Tee-Zee?!’ and he’ll have me dying,” Jackson said.

Hillesland said he also makes everyone laugh when he doesn’t mean to, thanks to a propensity to randomly forget where he is or what he’s doing.

“We were walking towards the weight room one day and he was walking with Kyle and [Irish forward Luke Harangody] and Rob was like, ‘You know what?’ and the guys were like ‘What?’ and then he just didn’t say anything else,” Hillesland said. “He tends to space out. He went to the movie ‘Fool’s Gold’ and ordered three tickets to ‘Fools Rush In.'”

And when he messes up on the court, Kurz is always the first to admit his mistakes – except when Digger comes around.

“I’ll say, ‘Come on, where have you been? You’re making me look bad on TV!” Phelps said.

Kurz then tries to hide until Digger leaves.

“He usually gets on me after a bad game, so if I see him in the training room after a loss, I’ll just try to sneak right by because I know he’s got something to say to me,” Kurz said.

But when the pressure is on late in the game, Kurz is always front and center willing to take a big shot or make an aggressive move to make something happen instead of playing on his heels and hoping his team pulls it out.

“My sophomore year we felt the pressure in close games because everybody was saying, ‘You can’t win the close games,’ and we almost allowed it to get to us to the point where it affected us late in games,” Kurz said. “After experiencing that, we knew we couldn’t win like that, and we had to be fearless and willing to take the shot even if it means it’s your responsibility if you lose that game.”

Even if Notre Dame’s season ends prematurely and Kurz graduates without seeing the Sweet 16, the relationship he’s developed and the help he has offered to the underclassmen ensure that his mark on Notre Dame’s basketball program will last for years to come.

“He is someone that everyone likes being around and has no enemies,” Falls said. “I think that is just his upbringing, he comes from a great family, he respects and treats everyone the right way, and I think people really respect him because of that. I feel lucky to have become so close with him over the last few years, and we’re like brothers now.”